Indian Flatbreads: roti, thepla and parantha

Indian Flatbreads: roti, thepla and parantha

There are many different types of Indian flatbread including roti (chapatti), thepla and parantha. The primary advantage of flatbread over conventional bread is that it’s easier to digest, and doesn’t have the same sticky and heavy properties as baked loaves. Roti is a plain Indian flatbread traditionally made with a stone-ground wheat flour called atta. Thepla is similar but thicker than roti, often made with different grains such as chana (chickpea) or millet, and usually includes herbs such as chopped fresh methi (fenugreek) or cilantro kneaded into the flour. A third type of Indian flatbread is parantha, which is usually stuffed with vegetables and herbs.

To make plain roti, follow these directions:

1 cup flour, germinated and roasted
1 cup sourdough culture (see below)
olive oil

Grind the flour to the desired consistency using a coffee grinder or a grain mill. Mix the flour and sourdough culture together, adding in a little water as required, and knead well. Place in a bowl and drizzle a little olive oil over the surface of the dough to keep it moist. Cover with a wet cloth and let sit for several hours in a warm place and let it ferment (2-18 hours). After fermentation, knead the dough again, and then break off pieces of the dough about the size of a golf ball, roll into a ball and put aside. Warm a large cast iron pan to medium heat with no oil. Sprinkle some flour onto a large flat surface such as a cutting board or a counter, and roll out each ball until it is a round, thin disc, and immediately place in the pan. Cook for approximately 1-2 minutes on each side. When golden brown, take the roti out of the pan and then place them on a hot burner very briefly until they puff up. Serves 3-4 people.

To make thepla use the same basic technique as roti, but add in the following ingredients after making the dough:

half cup fresh chopped methi (fenugreek)
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tsp ajwain seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp cracked black pepper
1 tsp salt

To make parantha prepare in the same manner as roti, but instead of mixing the ingredients into the flour, you are going to stuff the roti. For the filling many different vegetables can be used, including cabbage, broccoli and sweet potato, but my favorite is gobi parantha – made with cauliflower (‘gobi’).

1 small head of cauliflower, coarsely grated and drained
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp black mustard
½ tsp crushed coriander seed
½ tsp hing
½ tsp ajwain
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp chili pepper
¼ tsp turmeric
½ tsp salt
2 tsp ghee

Grate the cauliflower (or any other vegetable), add the salt and mix well in a bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes then take a handful out at a time, squeezing out the excess liquid and put aside. Melt 1 tsp of ghee in a saucepan and roast the cumin, black mustard, coriander and ajwain for a minute until the mustard starts to pop, then add in the hing, turmeric and black pepper. Mix for a few seconds then add in the cauliflower. Stir-fry for a few minutes then put aside, half-cooked. Follow the recipe for roti: roll out each ball to about three inches in diameter, and place about 2 tbsp of filling in the middle. Make a dumpling by pulling the edges of the roti together, and then roll flat to no more than ¼ inch thickness. Parantha can also be made by rolling out two roti, laying the filling on one, covering with the second, pinching the edges closed and then rolling flat. Melt 1 tsp of ghee in a frying pan on medium-low heat, and fry each parantha on both sides until golden brown.

To Make Sourdough
Sourdough is a method to ferment flour made from whole cereal grains with naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that deactivate antinutrient factors.  To make a sourdough culture blend one cup of whole grain flour with one cup of chlorine-free water.  Keep the starter in a warm place, such as in the kitchen, at temperatures between 70-80˚F/21-26˚C.  After 24 hours discard half the starter and add in a half-cup flour and a half-cup purified warm water to feed the culture, and repeat again the next day.  By day three this mixture will have a distinct yeasty smell, and on about day four the starter will become frothy, indicating that it is ready to use.  Often a brownish alcoholic liquid (‘hooch’) will appear on the surface – this is normal – just mix it back into the starter.

On the issue of gluten…

On the issue of gluten…

Gluten intolerance is not only a ubiquitous issue, but an entire industry of “gluten-free” foods has been created around it. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue of gluten, taken from Food As Medicine: The Theory and Practice of Food. pages 51-54. If you would like to make a traditional Indian flatbread that reduces gluten to negligible, please review my recipe for sourdough roti, thepla and parantha.

Over thousands of years of experimentation we have learned to process cereals to limit the negative effects of antinutrient factors, including grinding, germination (p. 116), fermentation (p. 127) and cooking. While innovations in modern technology would have us dispense with many of these methods, history demonstrates that when we fail to observe traditional measures there can be dramatic repercussions. Pellagra arose as a mysterious disease in the South-Eastern US during the early 1900’s, just a few years after cornmeal had been introduced as food to feed the poorer classes. Pellagra ravages the body causing skin lesions, chronic diarrhea and dementia, killing the victim in just a few years. It took almost 50 years before a scientist discovered that pellagra was caused by a niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency. Years later it was discovered that the traditional Aztec practice of processing corn with an alkali such as wood ash or lime (called nixtamalization) releases niacin trapped in the outer shell of the kernel.

While pellagra is now a rare occurrence, its underlying cause finds resonance in a whole new epidemic of gluten intolerance. Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in the seeds of grass species including wheat, spelt, kamut, rye and barley. When ground into a flour gluten gives these cereals a glue-like consistency that allows the dough to rise, trapping the gasses released by the leavening agent like a balloon fills with air. Etymologically the word ‘gluten’ is derived from the Latin word ‘glutinis’ meaning ‘glue’, and it is perhaps no surprise that the sticky properties of gluten are used to good effect in other applications such as paper-making, wallpaper paste, paper-mâché and play-dough.

Given the sticky, glue-like property of gluten and flour it is easy to appreciate that gluten is very difficult to digest. At the extreme end are those who suffer from celiac disease, and exhibit a profoundly negative response to gluten consumption, manifesting characteristic symptoms including abdominal pain, steatorrhea, constipation and malabsorption. Although less than 1% of the population is diagnosed with overt celiac disease, researchers suspect gluten intolerance may be much more common than previously thought,[1] affecting up to 29% of the US population.[2] Beyond the effect on digestion, gluten intolerance is associated with a number of other issues including:

  • weight loss[3]
  • anemia[4]
  • fatigue[5]
  • dermatitis herpetiformis[6]
  • psoriasis[7]
  • autoimmune thyroiditis[8]
  • type 1 diabetes[9]
  • uveitis[10]
  • Addison’s disease[11]
  • infertility[12]
  • inflammatory bowel disease[13]
  • autoimmune liver disorders[14], [15]
  • pancreatitis[16]
  • peripheral neuropathy[17]
  • dementia[18]
  • epilepsy[19], [20]
  • anxiety[21]
  • migraine[22]
  • fibromyalgia[23]
  • arthritis[24], [25]
  • osteoporosis[26]
  • cancer[27], [28]

The typical advice given to confirmed celiacs and those suspected of gluten intolerance is to avoid gluten-containing foods such as bread, pasta, pastries, muffins and breakfast cereal. Gluten however is hidden in many foods, used by industry as an adhesive and excipient in processed and prepared meats, processed cheeses, condiments, sweeteners and candy, as well as breads “made without flour”. Given its prevalence in the food supply gluten avoidance can be a difficult task for the consumer, especially outside of big cities and major centers, and itself can be a cause of chronic anxiety.[29]

Given the association of gluten intolerance with chronic disease it is not surprising that the popularity of gluten-free products has exploded in the marketplace. Manufacturers have found clever ways to use non-gluten flours such as rice, buckwheat, corn, sorghum, teff, tapioca, arrowroot, potato, coconut, soy bean, guar bean and locust bean to make familiar products. While many of these alternatives do seem to lessen the symptoms associated with gluten intolerance, the question arises if we are substituting one problem for another. Very few of these alternatives were traditionally milled into a fine flour and used in baked goods, and many have the same types of antinutrient factors and immune sensitizers as gluten-containing cereals such as wheat.

It could be that much of the issue with the widespread gluten intolerance that seems to have evolved from thin air, like corn and pellagra, is in large part an artifact of not observing traditional methods of food preparation. Traditional methods of bread making, like the nixtamalization of corn, is an involved process that includes sprouting, roasting and stone-grinding the cereal to a coarse flour. The key element is the incorporation of a sourdough culture comprised of naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts. Apart from their use as leavening agents, these organisms ferment starches and produce enzymes in the process that effectively hydrolyze the gluten, turning it into easily digestible proteins.[30] Clinical research shows that when sourdough is used in the preparation of baked goods it is surprisingly well tolerated among patients with celiac disease.[31] Making real sourdough bread however is an artisan skill that requires time and effort to practice (see page 128).

[1] Harrison MS, Wehbi M, Obideen K. 2007. Celiac disease: more common than you think. Cleve Clin J Med. 74(3):209-15.
[2] Fine K. 2003. Early Diagnosis Of Gluten Sensitivity: Before the Villi are Gone. Available from
[3] Nelsen DA Jr. 2002. Gluten-sensitive enteropathy (celiac disease): more common than you think. Am Fam Physician. 66(12):2259-66.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Birkenfeld S, Dreiher J, Weitzman D, Cohen AD. 2009. Coeliac disease associated with psoriasis. Br J Dermatol. 161(6):1331-4.
[8] Ch’ng CL, Jones MK, Kingham JG. 2007. Celiac disease and autoimmune thyroid disease. Clin Med Res. 5(3):184-92.
[9] Bhadada SK, Kochhar R, Bhansali A, Dutta U, Kumar PR, Poornachandra KS, Vaiphei K, Nain CK, Singh K. 2011. Prevalence and clinical profile of celiac disease in type 1 diabetes mellitus in north India. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 26(2):378-381.
[10] Krifa F, Knani L, Sakly W, Ghedira I, Essoussi AS, Boukadida J, Ben Hadj Hamida F. 2010. Uveitis responding on gluten free diet in a girl with celiac disease and diabetes mellitus type 1. Gastroenterol Clin Biol. 34(4-5):319-20.
[11] Elfström P, Montgomery SM, Kämpe O, Ekbom A, Ludvigsson JF. 2007. Risk of primary adrenal insufficiency in patients with celiac disease. J. Clin. End. & Metab. 92(9): 3595
[12] Collin P, Vilska S, Heinonen PK, Hällström O, Pikkarainen P. 1996. Infertility and coeliac disease. Gut. 39(3):382–4.
[13] Leeds JS, Höroldt BS, Sidhu R, et al. 2007. Is there an association between coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel diseases? A study of relative prevalence in comparison with population controls. Scand. J. Gastroenterol. 42(10):1214–20
[14] Niveloni S, Dezi R, Pedreira S, Podestá A, Cabanne A, Vazquez H, Sugai E, Smecuol E, Doldan I, Valero J, Kogan Z, Boerr L, Mauriño E, Terg R, Bai JC. 1998. Gluten sensitivity in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis. Am J Gastroenterol. 93(3):404-8.
[15] Volta U, Rodrigo L, Granito A, et al. 2002. Celiac disease in autoimmune cholestatic liver disorders. Am. J. Gastroenterol. 97(10):2609–13
[16] Patel RS, Johlin FC, Murray JA. 1999. Celiac disease and recurrent pancreatitis. Gastrointest. Endosc. 50(6): 823–7
[17] Hadjivassiliou M, Rao DG, Wharton SB, Sanders DS, Grünewald RA, Davies-Jones AG. 2010. Sensory ganglionopathy due to gluten sensitivity. Neurology. 75(11):1003-8.
[18] Hu WT, Murray JA, Greenaway MC, Parisi JE, Josephs KA. 2006. Cognitive impairment and celiac disease. Arch Neurol. 63(10):1440-6.
[19] Canales P, Mery VP, Larrondo FJ, Bravo FL, Godoy J. 2006. Epilepsy and celiac disease: favorable outcome with a gluten-free diet in a patient refractory to antiepileptic drugs. Neurologist. 12(6):318-21.
[20] Mavroudi A, Karatza E, Papastavrou T, Panteliadis C, Spiroglou K. 2005. Successful treatment of epilepsy and celiac disease with a gluten-free diet. Pediatr Neurol. 33(4):292-5.
[21] Addolorato G, Capristo E, Ghittoni G, et al. 2001. Anxiety but not depression decreases in coeliac patients after one-year gluten-free diet: a longitudinal study. Scand. J. Gastroenterol. 36(5): 502–6
[22] Gabrielli M, Cremonini F, Fiore G, Addolorato G, Padalino C, Candelli M, De Leo ME, Santarelli L, Giacovazzo M, Gasbarrini A, Pola P, Gasbarrini A. 2003. Association between migraine and Celiac disease: results from a preliminary case-control and therapeutic study. Am J Gastroenterol. 98(3):625-9.
[23] Wallace DJ, Hallegua DS. 2004. Fibromyalgia: the gastrointestinal link. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 8(5):364-8.
[24] Sökjer M, Jónsson T, Bödvarsson S, Jónsdóttir I, Valdimarsson H. 1995. Selective increase of IgA rheumatoid factor in patients with gluten sensitivity. Acta Derm Venereol. 75(2): 130–2
[25] Al-Mayouf SM, Al-Mehaidib AI, Alkaff MA. 2003. The significance of elevated serologic markers of celiac disease in children with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Saudi J Gastroenterol. 9(2):75-8.
[26] Kemppainen T, Kröger H, Janatuinen E, Arnala I, Kosma VM, Pikkarainen P, Julkunen R, Jurvelin J, Alhava E, Uusitupa M. 1999. Osteoporosis in adult patients with celiac disease. Bone. 24(3):249-55.
[27] Holmes GK, Stokes PL, Sorahan TM, Prior P, Waterhouse JA, Cooke WT. 1976. Coeliac disease, gluten-free diet, and malignancy. Gut. 17(8): 612–9
[28] Ferguson A, Kingstone K. 1996. Coeliac disease and malignancies. Acta Paediatr Suppl. 412:78-81.
[29] Häuser W, Janke KH, Klump B, Gregor M, Hinz A. 2010. Anxiety and depression in adult patients with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet. World J Gastroenterol. 16(22):2780-7.
[30] De Angelis M, Cassone A, Rizzello CG, Gagliardi F, Minervini F, Calasso M, Di Cagno R, Francavilla R, Gobbetti M. 2010. Mechanism of degradation of immunogenic gluten epitopes from Triticum turgidum L. var. durum by sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases. Appl Environ Microbiol. 76(2):508-18.
[31] Di Cagno R, De Angelis M, Auricchio S, Greco L, Clarke C, De Vincenzi M, Giovannini C, D’Archivio M, Landolfo F, Parrilli G, Minervini F, Arendt E, Gobbetti M. 2004. Sourdough bread made from wheat and nontoxic flours and started with selected lactobacilli is tolerated in celiac sprue patients. Appl Environ Microbiol. 70(2):1088-96.

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